Youth Activism through Critical Arts, Transmedia, and Multiliteracies
Youth Activism through Critical Arts, Transmedia, and Multiliteracies
- Theresa RogersTheresa RogersUniversity of British Columbia
In the context of increasing realizations of the fragility of democracy, the possibilities and accomplishments of youth activist projects across material and virtual spaces and sites continue to flourish. Research on this work is situated in the rich scholarly traditions of critical youth studies and critical youth literacies as well as in theories of civic engagement, public pedagogy, participatory politics, cosmopolitanism, and relational mobilities. Many youth projects draw on the resources of arts, digital media, and critical multiliteracies to participate, in material ways, in public and political life. Taking up issues such as citizenship for immigrant youth, homelessness, and poverty, young people powerfully create critical, social, and political narratives that resonate within and beyond their own communities. Theorizing this work in relation to public engagement, spatiality, and mobilities deepens our understanding of those moments when youth in community and educational sites create powerful transmediated counter-narratives about their lives and worlds—the ways they incorporate both local and global understandings to create these new forms of political participation. And the work itself underscores the need for more equitable access to various multimodal and digital resources and the importance of youth access to public and mediated spaces. Schools and educators are called to create pedagogical spaces that invite students’ subjectivities, locations, and creative uses of material resources to engage in local and larger public dialogues, counter dominant cultural ideologies, address multiple publics, and create new forms of political participation.
- Alternative and Non-formal Education
- Education and Society
- Technology and Education
- Languages and Literacies
It is an interesting time, in the late autumn of 2021 and winter of 2022, to write about youth and activism. Well before the presidency of Donald Trump and the subsequent war in Ukraine, there were rising concerns about the deterioration of democracy and democratic institutions in the United States and across the world. Writers in the U.S. popular media have continued to lament the fragility and even demise of public democratic institutions (e.g., Applebaum, 2020; Goldberg, 2018; Gopnik, 2021; Osnos, 2021). Such laments have reverberated across other countries with democracies led by increasingly authoritarian leaders, such as Brazil, Poland, Turkey, Hungary, and India.
These concerns over democratic practices and institutions have coincided with the persistent shrinking of public spaces in many contemporary cities as a result of neoliberal policies and gentrification (e.g., Solnit & Schwartzenberg, 2000). While this era of disappearing public spaces has also seen a rise in youth activism in alternative spaces, including those created within social media platforms, it has been argued that physical public space is still necessary for the sustainable future of civic life. It is in and through physical public spaces that citizenship has been historically represented (Kimmeman, 2012, 2014) and enacted (Arendt, 1958a, 1958b). Contemporary movements without a public space component therefore risk becoming diffuse. As Manuel Castells (2012), a prominent social movement theorist, argues:
Since the institutional public space, the institutionally designated space for deliberation, is occupied by the interests of the dominant elites and their networks, social movements need to carve out a new public space that is not limited to the Internet, but makes itself visible in the spaces of public life. This is why they occupy urban space and symbolic buildings. (pp. 10–11)
He notes that it is these hybrid spaces that have played a major role in the history of social change, constituting sites of transformative practice.
In the United States and spreading into other countries, many young people have taken to the streets in large numbers. Many participated in the women’s marches of 2017 and 2020. Building on the social media origins of the Black Lives Matter movement, youth took to the streets in unprecedented numbers in 2020, in spite of the ongoing pandemic, to protest police violence against African-American citizens in the United States—perhaps the largest North American youth movement since Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Other United States–based youth-involved movements include United We Dream (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA]), the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests (#NoDAPL and Standing Rock), #MeToo in 2017 and Parkland March for Our Lives in 2018. Globally, movements include Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and the youth climate movement, Brexit and REMAIN in England, Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai activism related to girls’ and women’s education, the umbrella movement in Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019, Arab Spring in 2011, and the movement to remove Omar al-Bashir in Sudan.
It is against this larger backdrop that I write about the possibilities and accomplishments of projects involving collaborations among educators and researchers and youth activists across material and virtual spaces and sites. What is not considered in this article are the many youth social movements conducted largely or solely on social media, often referred to as digital activism; for an examination of this topic in relation to education, see, for instance, Stornaiuolo and Thomas (2017). Although many of these digital movements have had material consequences and effects and have been linked to larger protest movements on- and offline, they are outside the scope of this article. Here, I focus on specific projects in which youth draw on the resources of arts, media, and literacies to participate, in material ways, in public and political life in local public spaces in and among their own communities as well as to connect to broader publics.
My colleagues and I have argued elsewhere that arts, media, and literacy practices have the potential to enable youth in communities to imagine new possibilities for public engagement and to participate in the larger project of citizenship in uncertain times (Rogers et al., 2015). As such, it is important to contextualize these projects in the contemporary context of global connectedness and the digital sphere, the forces of neoliberalism, gentrification and resultant loss of public space, the fragility of democracy, and the need and potential for educators to engender and support public engagement among youth.
The Rise of Critical Youth Studies Perspectives
Before turning to these concepts guiding an understanding of public or political and civic engagement among youth, I briefly situate this work by acknowledging the general rise of youth studies, which spans the many social and cultural practices among and about youth, and critical youth studies in particular. As Talburt and Lesko (2012) note, “various imaginings of youth, their development, and their potential problems naturalize and are naturalized by an array of perceived social problems and solutions” (p. 5). In this important collection, Keywords in Youth Studies, they speak back to these imaginings in order to consider those possibilities that refuse neoliberal discourses wherein a public sphere is viewed in terms of personal responsibility, and instead they focus on projects that attend to the sociopolitical and material realities “with glimmers of counterdiscourse” (p. 19). For instance, projects such as the Youth Radio project in Oakland, California offer youth an opportunity for sustained, if partial or incomplete, resistance to portrayals of current events through public narratives that reach a wide audience (Chávez & Soep, 2005).
A rich and voluminous collection of work in the Critical Youth Studies Reader (Ibrahim & Steinberg, 2014) traces work with youth from the 1970s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies to the emergence of contemporary youth studies that more deeply considers the intersectionality of gender, class, race, sexuality, and ability and how they impact and are impacted by social structures (Ibrahim, 2014). This collection includes foundational scholars influencing contemporary critical youth literacies (e.g., Paul Willis, Douglas Kellner, Henry Giroux, Susan Talburt, Michelle Fine, and Nancy Lesko). In an early chapter, Kellner (2014) argues that the future of democracy depends on youth of all kinds having access to multimedia technology and critical pedagogies to work against societal inequities across digital and physical spaces. Giroux (2014) equates the crisis of youth with a crisis of democracy—and the only way to address a collapse of intellectual and moral vision is to imagine policies, values, opportunities, and social relations that provide young people the economic, social, and educational conditions that make their lives livable and sustainable.
In the collection’s last section, which focuses on youth activism, Steinberg (2014) reiterates the importance in this work of mentoring transformational leaders—committing to the development of democratic citizens who can articulate their place within power structures and society. Here, for instance, a chapter by Bettina Love references the important work of Anne Dyson, Ernest Morrell and Jabari Mahiri, David Kirkland, and others to illustrate the power and potential of pedagogical “third spaces” where youth counter-narratives “are reflective of youths’ social, economic, and cultural realities and conditions” (p. 450).
Conceptions of Public, Political, and Civic Engagement Among Youth
Various conceptualizations about youth public engagement or the ways that youth address and, in turn, produce public audiences and spaces include civic engagement (Hickey-Moody, 2013; Rheingold, 2008), public pedagogy (Giroux, 2000; Sandlin et al., 2010), participatory politics (Jenkins et al., 2016), cosmopolitanism (Hull & Stornaiuolo, 2014), and relational mobilities (Urry, 2007). Each of these conceptualizations indexes particular notions of young people acting in the contexts of various publics, access, spatial relations, and dialogic possibilities, and they also intersect in important ways.
While civic or political engagement has many definitions, it often assumes an actor, or actors, who participate in public spheres (e.g., Rheingold, 2008). The focus here is on actors who engage in or create publics by using their voice in order to participate in this public sphere (Habermas, 1974) and possibly even shape the world they live in. Habermas (1974) initially, in a rationalist and idealized way, defined the “public sphere” as a domain of social life in which a public opinion can be formed and in which access is, in principle, open to all citizens. However, as Fraser (1990) argues, in any socially and economically stratified society, there exists the need for multiple, competing, and sometimes contesting publics in order to expand democratic discursive spaces.
According to Rheingold (2008), finding “first publics” might be central to finding and accessing larger publics. In accessing and addressing various publics, youth can share specific ideas from and about young people with their audiences—activities that can be seen as civic or political engagement. Addressing publics in this way is a form of participation in the life of a community or communities with the possibility of improving conditions for others and helping shape the future of communities, nations, and the world.
Drawing on Giroux’s (2000) theorizations of public pedagogy, Sandlin et al. (2010) build on the work of Ellsworth (2005) to argue that public pedagogy also requires a contextualized sensibility towards research and theorizing, drawing on a range of cultural discourses, while seeking “to inhabit complex and ambiguous spaces of pedagogical address” (p. 3). Here, Sandlin et al. (2010) open the definition of public pedagogy to the possibility of conceptualizing multiple kinds of “publics” and public spaces of learning.
These public pedagogies, then, are relational to the alternative, anomalous, and multiple counterpublics that they address (Ellsworth, 2005; Fraser, 1990; Warner, 2002), small and large, that create new forms and sites of public engagement. The idea of these counterpublics can take the form of concrete audiences or audiences of texts and discourses that circulate and recirculate in ongoing transmedia conversations. Counterpublics often assume a power difference between its members and the larger public, as in the case of youth culture broadly understood and marginalized youth in particular. Hickey-Moody (2013) describes youth production in these contexts as vernacular educational sites or “little publics”—they are not so much about the arts, media, or literacy product itself as they are social commentaries on their everyday lives. In addressing publics, these vernacular productions create speaking positions that are in dialogue with specific ideas and ideologies from and about young people, activities that can be understood as forms of aesthetic citizenship. As Hickey-Moody (2013) argues, artistic productions of youth transform the materiality of culture into a kind of pedagogy; as she notes, “art can shift young people’s understandings of themselves and public understandings of youth” (p. 127).
Central to these theorizations of civic and political engagement and public pedagogy is the connection between counterpublics, or little publics, and conceptions of broader and less tangible or material publics. Cosmopolitanism in its broadest sense includes a diffuse set of theoretical positions that look at the world “across time and space and see how people have thought and acted beyond the local” (Pollack et al., 2002, p. 10). Theories of cosmopolitanism (e.g., Appadurai, 1996, 2006) as applied to youth are defined from a dialogic perspective and often include an understanding of the interface of the local and the global spheres with various contradictory effects, including shifting identities, affiliations, and identifications that define cosmopolitan life as “a condition or experience of internal globalization” (Harper et al., 2010, p. 5). Appadurai (2006) also emphasizes the growing inequalities produced by globalization and the attendant threats to ethical responses to cultural difference and the clash of global identities.
In our contemporary local/global interface, a relational mobilities perspective adds another dimension to the possibilities of youth engagement in its key assumption that “all social entities, from a single household to large scale corporations, presuppose many different forms of actual and potential movement” (Urry, 2007, p. 6). That is, what we understand to be social can now be seen as a performance of heterogeneous materiality—constituted through talk, bodies, texts, machines, and architectures; the social is no longer based only on physical proximity but also on what Urry (2007) refers to as an “imagined presences” (p. 47). What constitutes citizenship, then, in this context is changing in relation to crisscrossing social entities and resulting interspaces. This work often stresses the importance of location-specific infrastructural inequities and restraints in movement across territorial and social spaces (e.g., Graham & Marvin, 2001; Manderscheid, 2013), or across what Massey (1993) describes as “geometries of power,” so that only certain kinds of bodies, stories, and participation are possible at particular moments and in particular spaces while others are not. A mobilities perspective allows us to see how youth cultures negotiate within and against this transnational spatial awareness (Rizvi, 2012).
In the three projects described below, the facets and forms of youth activism are illustrated in various ways. All include some form of public engagement and activism and include the arts or aesthetic aspects as tactics that strengthen their forms of communication. Indeed, the arts have been key to youth engagements in and reimagining of the public sphere. It is often with and through the arts that young people can create more human and just “as-if” worlds as a way to envisage new possibilities (e.g., Soep, 2016). These aesthetic activities are robust literacies that contribute to transmedia mobilization and often include storytelling, poetry, popular cultural remix, filmmaking, and music. Another common thread to these projects consists of the ways they are in dialogue with various public spheres—addressing their own little, local (or counter) publics, in material and virtual spaces, and reaching wider and sometimes more global audiences.
Youth Arts, Media, and Political Engagement: Three Projects
In this section, I focus on examples from three projects described in book-length volumes that illustrate the ways that youth have taken up digital and other multimodal resources during the past decade or so. These three projects have elements of what might be understood as youth arts, critical and multimodal and transmedia literacies as means to engage in various forms of political or civic participation. There are many avenues to civic engagement—through citizen journalism, forms of dialogue, production and consumption of information, sharing/circulating ideas, and mobilizing (Kahne et al., 2014). Since the rise of digital media, there has been an increasing interest in the ways that youth take up these various multimodal resources and approaches to represent their various identity positionings, resist and counter oppressive cultural norms and discourses, and engage in local and global political activism.
I highlight the ways these projects reflect the rich possibilities of engaging with youth who are participating in political life through arts, media, and critical literacies. The term “participatory” often comes up in this work—whether in terms of participatory culture or cultures (e.g., Jenkins et al., 2009; Jocson, 2018), participatory politics (Jenkins et al., 2016), or youth participatory research (Akom et al., 2008). As Kahne et al. (2014) note, the idea of “participatory” as rooted in Jenkins’s work can be defined as “significantly peer-based, interactive, nonhierarchical, independent of elite-driven institutions, and social; that is, accessible to analysis at the level of the group rather than the individual” (p. 7). The advent of the digital enabled the creation and production of media, and possibilities for collaboration, as well as ways for the work to more easily circulate. Understanding youth literacies as multimodal was influenced not only by the work of the New London Group (2000) and the work of New Literacies researchers (Coiro et al., 2008) but also in innumerable ways by the work on youth participatory culture and the notion of convergence culture (Jenkins, 2006) as offering alternatives to the corporatized forms of popular culture and media.
By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism by Henry Jenkins and colleagues
Henry Jenkins is a foundational scholar in the area of youth and media studies. In By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, Jenkins and colleagues (2016) move from participatory culture (Jenkins et al., 2009) to participatory politics, defined as “the ability to forge a sense of collective voice and efficacy through larger networks that work together to bring about change” (p. 41). They note that this is not to argue that much of participatory culture was not inherently political but that participatory politics includes more explicit activist goals to bring about change. This book stems from a larger MacArthur Foundation–funded network on youth and participatory politics that, among other initiatives, has documented the political participation of youth in the United States. This book focuses on case studies of youth who take up a range of media to engage in particular forms of activism. Examples include activism related to child soldiering in Uganda, fan activism related to bullying, Muslim activism, the use of videos to address intersectional “undocumented queer” depicting their struggles, and even youth identifying as “libertarian” using memes to convey their arguments.
Important issues raised in this work include the power of media to provide access to mainstream forms of distribution so that political tactics can move fluidly across on- and offline spaces. Identity, community-building, and political work of youth can occur at all levels—from the “hyperlocal” to the transnational. Youth can combine the use of media platforms and street protest, for example, resulting in a sort of transmedia activism or mobilization (Costanza-Chock, 2014). As Castells (2014) argues,
the new social movements are networked in multiple ways, not only online but in the form of urban social networks, interpersonal networks, pre-existing social networks, and the networks that form and reform spontaneously in cyber-space and in physical public space (xi).
One case study in the book focuses on a group called DREAMers (Gamber-Thompson & Zimmerman, 2016). They refer to the DREAM activist movement as the first national youth-led movement of immigrant rights of its kind. It was begun in response to the immigration bills passed in the mid-2000s calling for conservative immigration reform. The chapter opens with a video of young person who identifies as having Iranian heritage and being gay and whose T-shirt reads “UN-DOC-U-MENT-ED,” talking about how he was not even able to attend a community college much less more prestigious universities where his classmates were planning to go. He was denied entrance after having been accepted to a community college when his status was revealed. After hearing that the Dream Act was not passed in the Senate in 2007, he became involved by talking and meeting with other undocumented students and started a national organization, DreamACTivist.org. The project invited youth to share stories on video, resulting in the 2011 National Coming Out of the Shadows Week campaign that included hundreds of testimonials on video platforms. This followed from the National Coming out of the Shadows event the previous year.
Jenkins and colleagues examined the ways that youth used digital media to build a national movement for immigrant rights. They conducted media content analysis, observed events, and interviewed DREAM activists located in four states. They share the ways that the youth created an archive of stories and experiences and engaged in both affective and tactical practices that led to and supported on-the-ground action, such as marching, staging graduations, and confronting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. They argue that this project is an example of youth using blended affective, performative, and tactical (using the “coming out” narrative) elements to re-narrative their stories and create a movement. They also argue, drawing on an interview quote from one participant, Erick Huerta, that the online activist elements were tied to place in concrete ways:
So we really have instances here in Lost Angeles where we’re really progressive. You know it’s California it’s a big state, there’s a big Latino population. We have that elbow room to be more open and to be more bold and to be more out there as opposed to folks who are in the Midwest organizing what’s a completely different set of issues. It’s very hard to navigate those [online] spaces because as somebody who is in California and undocumented, there’s so many different privileges that I have and folks that are in other states don’t even have...(Jenkins et al., 2016, p. 195).
Comments such as this illustrate issues of access as well as the youths’ awareness of what Massey (1993) refers to as the differential geometries of power across spaces.
Jenkins and colleagues note the successes of the movement up to the time of writing the book, including the decision of Barack Obama’s administration to stop deporting young undocumented citizens who met certain criteria, the DACA program, and the attention drawn to activities conducted by ICE. These undocumented youth drew on a robust collective identity and adopted various media tools and skills to build a social movement in spite of the risks entailed. They created a visible archive of experiences and a powerful counterpublic. Jenkins et al. (2016) argue that this counterpublic archive counteracted the mass media representations of undocumented citizens. They did so through storytelling or affective citizenship, transmedia mobilization, and networked communication, together with on-the-ground activities.
Given that so much of youth social life is currently associated with social media, this is also the space where they will take up political participation. Ultimately, however, Jenkins et al. (2016) also acknowledge the limits of youth social media activism: “Change comes not simply through access to technologies but through structures that support young people’s political participation” (p. 288). It was often only momentarily that the youth’s activities crossed “fully and unambiguously” from cultural participation into political participation, and this expressive politics coupled with offline protests, such as street protests, may be what is most effective. They cite Castells (2012) on the importance of public spaces where social movements can be visible in spaces of public life. Kalin (2021) concurs by arguing that the
authors effectively use these case studies to demonstrate how a common interest within a community can bring about change in the world even if that was not the goal...[and] while technology has many benefits, in the end, human interaction is the greatest, most powerful tool to invoke change. (p. 1483)
Youth, Arts, Media, Critical Literacies, and Civic Engagement: Rogers and colleagues
It is in a similar theoretical, chronological, and practical space that my colleagues and I conducted our own project on youth critical literacies and civic engagement (Rogers, 2016; Rogers et al., 2015) in Vancouver, Canada. We worked alongside youth who actively engaged with social and cultural discourses, norms, and possibilities in playful and more serious and always productive ways often, but not always, in the hopes of provoking change. Starting in the mid-2000s when technology had fully found its way into the classroom as well as many homes and community settings (though in unequal ways), we began to ask questions about how youth were using multimodal resources, alongside older technologies and arts-based approaches and resources, to take up critical positions or “claims” (Rogers et al., 2010; Rogers et al., 2015).
Our work with three community and school youth programs was beginning as Vancouver was on the verge of hosting the 2010 Olympics, raising the visibility of the neoliberal forces that govern many institutional decisions and often displacing people and public spaces. Our project explored the ways that youth from diverse areas of the city used writing, visual arts, film, theatre, and media to make critical claims about their everyday lived experiences in this context. Some of the youth faced challenges of living on and off the streets, some were speaking back to the violence in their lives and in society, and others were creatively exploring the intersection of their lived experiences and imagined social futures.
The project rested on many rich theorizations and prior projects that informed the assumptions and approach to the work, including the seminal work of Paulo Freire (1970) on critical pedagogy in community settings. Soep (2016), in arguing for the importance of a critical consciousness among youth as essential for participatory politics, also invokes Freire’s fundamental notion of being able to name the world. Freire delineated a key distinction between systematic education and educational projects; he argued that, in the latter, oppression can be transformed through “praxis” involving both a change in the way oppression is perceived and the “expulsion of myths” of the oppressor (Freire, 1970, pp. 54–55). We considered our work as a post-Freireian project in which youth engaged in a dialogue that named the everyday world around them, creating counter-discourses or counter-narratives (Giroux et al., 1996). We engaged in each of three sites for over a year and engaged in participant–observation, interviews, and document analyses.
Much of the work of the youth in this project deployed counter-narrative tactics of parody, irony, and satire as critical and oppositional tools across their productions with particularly sophisticated uses of parody as public social critique. These were used in combination with creative borrowing or poaching of popular culture texts and recombining rules and products for their own ends (Boler, 2008; Knobel & Lankshear, 2002). The use of irony, parody, and satire among youth in this project reflects these tactics and gave voice to their claims about homelessness, violence, and contemporary adolescent bodies and lives—creating lively counter-narratives to dominant cultural discourses.
In one site that is described, a center for youth experiencing homelessness, the chapter opens with the example of a zine page from “Another Slice” by Jordan lamenting the “rigs” (needles) left in schools and parks by downtown drug users. The page includes a slogan, “Rigs go in a BOX, NOT in my parks and schools,” a drawing of a rig with words surrounding it to create a concrete poem, and an irreverent photo of himself. To construct this counter-narrative about drug use, Jordan draws on the persuasive tactics of a poster with a concrete poem and image, a slogan, and a photo to make a claim about responsible drug use in the city. We have argued (e.g., Rogers, 2016) that this work has persuasive power and is deeply embedded in a series of momentary interactions and engagements with others in the zine group, in the life and texts of his community, as well as with the materials on hand.
These interactions situated Jordan in several publics; the zine page further locates him as a member of the community he is participating in while addressing a potentially wider imagined public of zine readers. The paper zine was initially distributed on the streets by the youth, and over the course of the project the zine began to be published online. In this way, his poster/zine page becomes a form of ethical and dialogical public engagement (e.g., Appadurai, 1996, 2006) with a tangible public in the life of his city. His poster of persuasion also intersects with a larger public and with highly contested dialogues in this city, and internationally, on alternative spaces for safe use of drugs.
We worked with this group of youth who came together on Sunday evenings to congregate, eat, and create pages for their zine, which was published approximately monthly from fall through to early summer. Each issue contained a range of genres and forms, including poetry, photographs, artwork, announcements, and interviews—and some issues are themed (e.g., tattoos and an issue for social workers). We worked with the zine group at the center every week over the course of several years as they developed numerous issues of the zine, two anthologies of poetry Words from the Street (Ford, 2015; Mills & Rogers, 2009), and films on homelessness addressed to the academic community (“Another Slice University”) as well as to the larger public. In a major theatre in the city, they also later created and staged a play on homelessness to a full theater over several evenings (see all these projects at).
Another case described is the Vancouver site of the North American “Leave Out Violence” project that was started to help youth end violence in their own lives and become community leaders of violence prevention. Prior to our work with them, the program engaged youth in writing and photojournalism to express the impact of violence of all kinds in their lives. We worked with the youth to support the production of a set of films focusing on issues related to identity, stereotyping, and anti-violence. They created films parodying stereotypical views of teenagers as “emo,” as drug users, and (for Black youth specifically) as thieves (e.g., Teenage Kicks).
We found one film pitch particularly poignant in the way it captured the mood of these youth. The narrative pitch serves as a testimonial of a contemporary urban imaginary, providing a barometer of the loss of the artistic, political, spiritual, and social life of a city because of gentrification. Through her detailed descriptions of scenes, this youth offers a specific kind of momentary yet critical engagement in dialogue with a little public and imagined larger public about a global urban phenomenon of the loss of public spaces:
...I want to do [a film] to the song by Air (the band) called “People in the City,” and just film all these people in Vancouver ...before the Olympics hit, like people doing weird things like showing people asleep on the bus... people busking on the streets. I want to do a shot of some businessmen because they are a big part of Vancouver...kids smoking pot at the art gallery, people just waiting for the bus, people on their cellphones, people drinking Starbucks, people—like kids, crazy crackheads...on Granville. Kids hanging out in the Kitslano area. Just like film different areas and put it to the song... It’s gonna change. They’re tearing down theatres, like the one across the street [a local arts and second-run movie theatre]....And they say they need more condos and I’m like it’s Vancouver, we have enough condos, and like they’re trying to ban buskers which is a tourist attraction, bad idea. And like they’re taking down low-income housing, a lot of it, which kinda sucks, like some people can’t afford it...and it’s like the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and if you’re too poor to live here then see ya later, pretty much....The city’s losing a lot of character and I want to capture it before it changes and shatters into pieces. They are taking down a lot of small independent stuff and everything is like shiny and new and flashy and glass and trendy. That’s what they are planning for [Vancouver] to be.(Rogers et al., 2015, p. 71).
We ultimately characterized these youth productions as forms of public pedagogy (Giroux, 2000; Sandlin et al., 2010) and civic engagement. In all three of these projects described in the book, the youth produced work that made claims about control of their bodies and lives that were eventually taken into the public realm in the form of civic engagement, producing relationships with the public sphere. This occurred in both embodied places, including public viewings and performances, and digital spaces through publishing paper and online versions of a zine, a poetry anthology, and films about youth homelessness, speaking at a United Nations conference on the rights of children and youth, creating and sharing videos about youth and anti-violence in a public forum, and creating original theatre performances for a local school community and for a general audience.
As Jenkins and colleagues (2009) argue, youth participatory culture includes producing and circulating content and creating a kind of “convergence culture” that can work to “repair the damage caused by an increasing privatized culture” (p. 256) or, we noted, offer alternatives to a more globalized and corporatized form of popular culture. Within these contexts, we found a connection between the larger culture, the productions of youth, and the challenges of radical democracy in what Giroux (2005) calls “a newly constituted global public” (p. 9). As Jenkins has noted, is often only in moments that the youth’s activities were fully politically engaged; nonetheless, the youth in both projects created a visible archive of their work that continues.
Youth Media Matters: Participatory Cultures and Literacies in Education by Korina Jocson
In this 2018 volume, Jocson opens by noting that she has been involved in youth media work in some form for over 20 years. Her work serves as a way to refocus not only on communities but also on classrooms in schools and universities as sites to expand youth media repertoires. She begins with an anecdote about viewing the making of a video in a school in which she reflects on the power of storytelling through film. She then emphasizes the lenses she brings to her work with young people and media, including an intersectional lens on difference, a geospatial perspective of “the relational and the creation of translocal digital networks as vital to imagine the ways we can reorganize learning in classrooms and beyond.... youth media as part of present day social and cultural movements....and that “media matters”” (pp. 2–3). She asks, “What pedagogies and repertoires of cultural practices leverage their knowledge toward civic engagement?” (p. 4).
The book describes four projects that use do-it-yourself production and cultural remix (Knobel & Lankshear, 2011) as well as informal mentorship. One project describes a site where youth engaged in spoken-word video production, and she focuses on two films: Slip of the Tongue and Barely Audible. She used an ethnography approach (interviewed poets, artists, and producers, took field notes of her participant observations, and collected media products) to describe the work and follow the dissemination of these films regionally and nationally. Her goal was to better understand media production and distribution of these works and to analyze the technical, conceptual, and aesthetic elements of the work to demonstrate the “locality of uptakes and stylistic choices” (p. 53). Jocson is particularly interested in the intersection of literary and media arts and, in the case of the work Barely Audible, the way that an initial written and performed poem was redesigned to create a video poem.
Barely Audible The video, which can be found on Youtube, features Chinaka Hodge, who is now a spoken-word artist, writer, educator, and playwright from Oakland, California, performing her poem written when she was a secondary school student. Some of the opening lines, quoted in Jocson (2018), are
I’m watching potential martyrs from my window
got my nose pressed against the glass
the sidewalk is drab, grey, dull, cracked.... (p. 62)
The poem continues to describe broken sidewalks littered with garbage that belies a night of drugs and sex, and it talks about how youth in the neighborhood try to survive. The poem addresses the effects of poverty and gentrification—viewed as a kind of “auction block.”
This original performance powerfully speaks to kinds of despair and strength among young people Hodge witnessed on the streets of her Oakland neighborhood. Jocson (2018) then describes the subsequent making of the video poem by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, an independent filmmaker in New York City. In creating this film, they decided to connect the images of the poem to larger issues—specifically to the issues transcending one location and affecting youth across the country (and, I would add, across borders)—poverty, gentrification, and violence (echoing the pitch on gentrification by a Canadian youth).
As Jocson (2018) notes, the film assembles and reassembles particularized or local meanings, drawing on images created in Oakland and actual scenes later filmed in Brooklyn. The film was eventually screened at film festivals, in educational settings, and on PBS, leading to further collaborations such as an arts festival focused on sustainability in Oakland, emphasizing the importance of blending artistic work with community engagement.
This film project provides one example of the ways that “translocal assemblages” serve to disrupt power structures embedded in the message; according to Jocson (2018), the work asks how these assemblages might shape discourses of power by naming educational and social inequities and disrupting power structures – practices that, she argues, are essential to advancing critical education. For young people to have agency in public spheres—including mobilizing civic capacity within networks, creating content, sharing information through public data archives, and designing tools and platforms to advance the public good are tactics of participatory politics.
These translocal assemblages, Jocson (2018) notes, offer place-based social movements the opportunities to exchange ideas, knowledge, practices, resources, and materials across sites, form connections between groups and places in a movement beyond one point in history, and build relations between and within sites with the capacity to both create and reassemble the work in other forms. Finally, she asks how we can use the potential of youth media practices to move toward transformative education: “How can we as educators and youth advocates create the kinds of space, practices, and conditions toward educative possibilities that can have real and tangible social impact?” (Jocson, 2018, p. 145).
Pedagogies of Youth Activism and Change
The work described in these projects provides just a few examples of the ways that important and expansive work in literacies, media, and youth participatory research has, over several decades, created a rich synergy of theories, practices, and youth activism within and across multimodal contexts and spaces. In the context of vanishing public spaces and threats to democracy, youth continue to carve out alternative spaces to engage in on-the-ground activism situated in their lived experiences. Many other key contemporary scholars, from a range of different positionalities and contexts, also continue to capture the myriad ways that youth are critically acting upon and remaking the worlds in which they reside by drawing on the manifold cultural and technological resources at hand (c.f. Anderson et al., 2021; Greene et al., 2018; Ibrahim & Steinberg, 2014).
The perspectives of civic engagement, public pedagogy, participatory politics, cosmopolitanism, and relational mobilities allow us to more fully understand the richness of the work among youth in these projects. These lenses reveal the importance of more equitable access to various multimodal and digital resources as well as the importance of access to public and mediated spaces. In particular, theorizations related to public engagement, spatiality, and mobilities deepen our understanding of those moments when youth in community and educational sites create powerful counter-narratives about their lives and worlds—the ways they incorporate both local and global understandings to create these new forms of political participation. Across the projects illustrated here, youth are powerfully engaging with the materiality of arts, media, and literacy to create critical, social, and political narratives that resonate within and beyond their own communities; indeed, these projects have the capacity to “teach the public” (Anderson et al., 2021).
It is important to emphasize the possibilities and accomplishments of these projects and to continue to conceptualize ways that this kind of powerful youth engagement can be more fully recognized or realized in educational settings. How might classrooms and schools offer renewed pedagogical spaces that invite students’ subjectivities, locations, and creative uses of material resources to engage in local and larger public dialogues, counter dominant cultural ideologies, address multiple publics, and create new forms of political participation?
A report from the National Academy of Education in the United States (Lee et al., 2021) begins to address this question, stating: “Our polarized, racialized, and politicized climates highlight the importance of equipping young people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to understand complex social issues, respect multiple points of view, and dialogue across differences” (p. 2). Developing these capacities is essential not only for students to prepare for citizenship, adulthood, and active membership in communities but also for the functioning of democracy itself; as we have witnessed so starkly, democracy is fragile. Our roles as mentors, educators, and researchers are to walk with and alongside our critically and civically engaged youth and to provide the resources they need to continue to engage in activism in local and broader transmediated spaces and to continue to create tangible archives of their work.
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